Judge William Birtles (1944-2020)

Judge William Birtles (1944-2020)

27 February 2020

Obituary by Professor Archie Brown (Emeritus Fellow)

Judge William (‘Bill’) Birtles

27 October 1944 – 13 January 2020

William Birtles – known to all his friends as Bill – had a distinguished career as academic lawyer, barrister and judge. His connection with St Antony’s College began in the early 1990s when he came as a Mid-Career Fellow for the 1993-94 academic year and established a strong relationship with the college, its Russian Centre in particular. For several years Bill served on the fund-raising committee for the reconstruction and refurbishment of the Centre Library. He had a keen interest in international relations and in post-Communist legal and political developments. For many years after his visiting fellowship, Bill remained an Academic Visitor of St Antony’s. Such was his personal popularity that the Warden’s PA noted that no-one else came close to attracting as many requests from College members (assuming, rightly or wrongly, that she had great power over placement) that they should be seated next to him at High Table. Bill was a man of wide cultural knowledge and of great intellectual curiosity. Yet those who knew him best – in St Antony’s and in the other circles in which Bill moved – remember him, above all, for his warmth, humour and great gift for friendship, in which it was a privilege to be embraced.

Although Bill could, doubtless, be considered a member of what is now often called the ‘metropolitan elite’ (albeit a somewhat irreverent one), he was the first in his family to go to university. His father was a long-distance lorry driver and his mother worked as a seamstress and as a telephonist. Bill studied law at King’s College London, taking his LLB in 1967 and LLM the following year. From 1968 to 1970 he was Lecturer in Law at King’s. He was Called to the Bar (Gray’s Inn) in 1970. His legal studies then took him to the United States where he was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard Law School (acquiring a Harvard LLM in 1971) and a Robert Marshall Fellow at New York University Law School. Returning to the UK, Bill taught at University College London, 1972-74. After these six years as an academic lawyer, Bill became a full-time barrister from 1974 until 2002, acting in both civil and criminal cases.

His particular areas of specialisation were environmental, planning, local government, and employment law, on which he published numerous articles and several books. The latter included his jointly authored Planning and Environmental Law (1994), Local Government Finance Law (2000) and Environmental Liability (2004).  In 2002 he became a Circuit Judge. Bill was Recorder in Snaresbrook, a judge in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and then resident judge at the Mayor’s and City of London Court where he led a successful campaign to prevent its closure when that was proposed by the Ministry of Justice.

Bill Birtles had a passion for politics and championed many good causes. He met his wife, Patricia Hewitt, in 1973 when he was the only man on the women’s rights committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties, of which Patricia was a leader in the 1970s (much later a Cabinet minister in the Labour government led by Tony Blair). Bill himself was a Labour councillor in the London borough of Camden during the first half of the 1980s. As Chair of the Housing Development Committee, he oversaw important social housing developments of which he was understandably proud. This, though, was a difficult time for mainstream Labour councillors, faced by Thatcherite cuts and rate-capping, on the one side, and by the Militant Tendency faction, on the other. The latter put their attempts to take over the Labour movement above all else and (until they were expelled from the party under the leadership of Neil Kinnock) would habitually keep meetings going until the early hours of the morning to drive their Labour opponents to distraction and exhaustion.

In her moving tribute to Bill at his Norfolk funeral service in All Saints’ Church, Thornham, on 29th January, Patricia emphasized that ‘Bill never forgot his roots’. He always looked after the people who made possible his work as a barrister and then a judge and became ‘angry if colleagues didn’t do likewise’. During one of his hospital stays in the last year of his life, ‘he was outraged by the abuse that some patients inflicted on nurses, healthcare assistants and catering staff’. He gave one ‘particularly obnoxious gentleman a thoroughly unjudicial ticking off’, and the nurses adored Bill ‘nearly as much as he adored them’.

The former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord (Charlie) Falconer, described Bill as ‘an outstandingly impressive lawyer and wonderful advocate’, as someone who was ‘always straightforward and kind’ and as a man who ‘understood politics and a life beyond work’. High Court Judge Dame Laura Cox recalled how supportive and encouraging Bill had been when, as a young lawyer, she was not sure she had made the right decision. She recalled, too, his ‘really mischievous sense of humour’ and ‘many hilarious moments’ they shared at the Bar and at the Employment Appeals Tribunal when Bill was a judge. Lord Justice David Richards (Court of Appeal judge) remarked on what ‘wonderful company’ Bill was and on how he ‘always had something interesting to say on a wide range of subjects from politics to law to opera, leavened with a bit of low gossip’. Monty Trent (who was a District Judge at the Mayor’s and City of London Court), described Bill as the best judge he had ‘ever had the privilege of working with’ and ‘an enchanting friend and companion’.

Bill’s enormous range of cultural interests included the history of art (on retiring as a judge, he further enhanced his knowledge in that field by taking a degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute), archeology, music (especially opera), theatre, novels and poetry. A thoroughgoing bibliophile with a large library, he collected travel books in particular. He also enjoyed the actual travel, especially when it led to architecturally or artistically interesting destinations.

Time and again those who recall Bill revert to his remarkable talent for friendship. He had friends from every part and place of his life – law, politics, art history, London, Oxford and Norfolk. A generous host, Bill was a bon viveur and the life and soul of many a party. That he brought such cheer to so many others was all the more impressive because, as was known only to those closest to him, from his teenage years he had himself suffered from depression. Yet he remained active and optimistic during the last year of his life while one serious medical condition after another was diagnosed. When the problems suddenly worsened and he was taken into the Royal London Hospital over Christmas 2019, he accepted calmly the news that his illness was incurable and spent his remaining time, in Patricia’s words, in ‘precious, final conversations’ with her and their two children, Alexandra and Nicholas Birtles.

Bill is survived by Patricia, Alexandra and Nicholas and by his brother Stephen Birtles. The family expressed the hope that anyone wishing to make a donation in Bill’s memory should consider doing so to any one of the following: the Royal London Hospital (where Bill had much care, especially in his final illness), the North Norfolk Music Festival (which Bill loved) and St Antony’s College (in particular, the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre). Many of us in the College, for our part, cherish our happy memories of Bill, mourn his departure, and have conveyed our deep sympathy to his family on their still greater loss.